Each year, PavÃ© previews the upcoming road season with a countdown of the top-20 teams in the sport. We pick things up today with #6.
#6 â€“ Katusha
With 2010â€™s #1-ranked rider, an improved classics squad, and a bevy of Russian talent to keep the sponsors happy, 2011 should be a banner year for Katusha.
Spainâ€™s Joaquin Rodriguez is the main focal point of the squad.Â A stage winner in last yearâ€™s Tour and a fourth-place finisher at the Vuelta, Rodriguez will spend the first part of his season focused on success in the Ardennes Classicsâ€”he finished second at Fleche Wallonne last year and at Liege in 2009â€”before deciding whether or not to tackle the Giro dâ€™Italia.Â While the difficult course is tempting to the Spaniard and his sponsors, Rodriguezâ€™s Giro track record isnâ€™t greatâ€”heâ€™ll likely benefit from a bit of rest following several months of racing in Mallorca, Paris-Nice, Catalunya, and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.Â And besides, with an eighth-place finish in last yearâ€™s Tour de France and his third-consecutive top-10 finish in the Vuelta, itâ€™s hard to see him not riding in at least his home Grand Tour this season.
Alongside Rodriguez in many races will be Russian champion, Alexandre Kolobnev. A talented one-day rider who finished second in last yearâ€™s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Kolobnev is arguably the teamâ€™s best stage win threat in races such as Paris-Nice, the Giro, and the Tour de France, as heâ€™s less concerned with GC results than Rodriguez. An aggressive rider who loves to attack, many fans would be happy to see the Russian take a win in Ardennes.
In the cobbled classics, Filippo Pozzato leads the way, with help from new signee Leif Hoste and classic veteran stalwart Sergei Ivanov. A cobble specialist, Hoste has three second-places finishes in the Tour of Flanders and an eighth-place finish in Roubaix on his resumÃ©; his expertise and horsepower should prove valuable to Pozzato as he attempts to win his first cobbled Monument.Â When in form, Pozzatoâ€™s one of the strongest riders in the pelotonâ€”especially in Belgium and Northern France.Â In 2009 he was arguably stronger than Tom Boonen, but suffered from poor decisions and bad luck in the Ronde and Roubaix. Last year, the Italian came down with a bad case of the flu just days before Flanders.Â He skipped the Ronde, but returned with just enough fitness to finish fourth at Roubaix.
And with another flat course on tap, Pozzato will also be a contender at this yearâ€™s World Championships in Copenhagen.Â He finished a lackluster fourth last year in Melbourne and would relish a second chance to win a rainbow jersey.
Overall, if Rodriguez, Kolobnev, and Pozzato manage to win the team a classic or two and maybe a Grand Tour, the Russian squad will end the year as one of the sportâ€™s best.Â But should they fall short of the expectations of sponsors and fans, theyâ€™ll be lucky to remain inside the top-10.
Man of the Hour: Joaquin Rodriguez ended last season as the worldâ€™s #1-ranked rider.Â This year he looks to win his first Grand Tourâ€”possibly at Italyâ€™s Giro dâ€™Italia, but more likely at the Vuelta later in the year. Along the way, Rodriguez should perform well in shorter stage races and the Ardennes Classicsâ€”all of which will help the Spaniard in his bid to defend his #1 ranking.
On the Hot Seat: Filippo Pozzato needs to win a cobbled Monument to justify all of the hype heâ€™s received over the past two seasons. A past winner of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the E3 Prijs Harelbeke, only Flanders or Roubaix will suffice at this point in the Italianâ€™s careerâ€”although a World Championship certainly wouldnâ€™t hurt.
Up-and-Comer: Denis Galimzyanov scored several top-10 finishes in field sprints last season, including five during the first two weeks of the Vueltaâ€”decent results for a soon-to-be 24-year-old sprinter with little to no lead-out train. Might he be the reason Katusha was willing to say goodbye to Robbie McEwen?
Best Pick-Up: Leif Hoste will bolster Katushaâ€™s squad in the cobbled classics, possibly proving to be the difference-maker for Pozzato.Â In fact, with Pozzato drawing most of the competitionâ€™s attention, Hoste might have a better chance at Roubaix than he did while leading the team with Lotto.
Biggest Loss: Katusha lost a bit of credibility when it signed Danilo Di Luca to a one-year contractâ€”even if itâ€™s supposedly for little-to-no money. One of the most notorious dopers of the past 10 years, Di Luca is a talented liability who needs to keep his nose clean in order justify the trust Katusha has placed in him. Unfortunately, many fans have already made up their minds.
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